Every so often I give myself the vicarious thrill of reading a novel by John Le Carré, and his recent book A Most Wanted Man has not let me down. Le Carré constructs his spy thrillers like the fuse of a bomb so that the explosion is on the last page and the reader, protected from lethal impact, can see that, as so often in real life, it’s the bastards who really win in the end. But it is not until the last four or five pages that we can begin to sort out who are the genuine goodies and who the real baddies. Is John Le Carré, a one-time MI6 operative, a realist, or just a cynic who writes like a poet?
This novel has a long fuse and the way it begins alerts the reader to the workings of the very competitive teams of spy catchers who exist in the very young Federal Republic of Germany.
Half-Chechen Issa (the Arabic form of ‘Jesus’) turns up as an illegal immigrant in Hamburg. But, clearly, he has been funded and assisted in getting there. The authorities who are all looking for him want to use him for their own purposes and label him a Chechen terrorist.
He says he has come to claim his inheritance that sits in a shady numbered account in a private bank. His charity-funded civil-rights lawyer, Annabel Richter, works to keep him safe from arbitrary deportation to Turkey or Russia, where tender mercy does not seem to be on offer. When he meets her, 60-year-old private banker Tommy Brue of Brue Frères feels the stirrings of late-flowering love and wants to protect her and keep her safe. The gnarled old field operator, Gűnter Bachmann, now minding a desk in Hamburg because he ruffles the feathers of the Joint Steering Committee in Berlin, deploys his years of experience, his fluency in Arabic and Russian as well as his native German, to concoct a simple scheme to get evidence against a Muslim scholar who has long been suspected of being the banker to the bombers. You know it cannot end well.
But the enjoyment of A Most Wanted Man lies in witnessing the duplicitous interplay between the various arms of the security services, played out in the background against the counterpoint of the human feelings of the banker and the lawyer caught up in the whole intrigue. Le Carrè is guilty of only one cheap joke but it is a good one; one that sums up what might serve as the motto for all his spy thrillers – “Life’s a botch.” And then I sigh: and promise myself I shall read another one of his marvellous books soon.